The Organ’s Nature
Annette Richards and David Yearsley

Sage Chapel


A verse - In Nomine

Nicholas Carleton (c. 1570-1630)

A Fancy for Two to Play

Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656)

Poem: I must go walk the wood so wild

Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542)

The Woods so Wild (1598)

William Byrd (c. 1540-1623)

Orfeo Variations

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) and David Yearsley (b. 1965)

The Fall of the Leafe

Martin Peerson (1571/73-1651)

Amarilli di Julio Romano

Peter Phillips (1560-1628)

Poem: Extinction of Silence

A. E. Stallings (b. 1968)


Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621)

Poem: Blackbird Etude

A. E. Stallings

Il Rossignolo (The Nightingale) (1677)

    Aria bizzarra del Rossignolo

    Imitatione del Uccello

Alessandro Poglietti (? - 1683)

Poem: Daisies

Louise Glück (b. 1943)

My Heart’s in the Highlands

(with Joe Lerangis, countertenor)

Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)

Reflections on “Far Above Cayuga’s Waters”

David Yearsley

Annette Richards and David Yearsley,
organ by Augustinus Vicedomini (Naples, 1746) and
organ by the Aeolian-Skinner Company (Boston, 1940)

Program Notes

At the heart of today’s recital lies a question: how can the organ, with its minutely calibrated moving parts and mechanical ingenuity, envoice nature? This wondrous machine would seem to be suited less to nature than to artifice, less to unmediated song than to the permutations and combinations of the contrapuntal arts. Yet for all its machine-like aspects, we think of the organ as a living breathing thing. Air must flow continuously through its pipes in order for it to sound. Early theorists understood the instrument to have lungs, lips and tongues, as much creature as machine, its many stops and variety of timbres themselves facsimiles, if not uncanny reanimations, of the voices of the natural world.

Today’s program begins in rural Worcestershire, with an investigation into the mingled voices of a musical friendship. The two contrapuntal works for four hands at one keyboard, written in the learned style of vocal polyphony by close friends and neighbors Thomas Tomkins and Nicolas Carleton survive in a manuscript once owned by Tomkins and were likely conceived as a pair for the two organists to play together. Ranging across the sonic terrain of the beautiful Neapolitan organ in Sage Chapel we offer two registrational possibilities for the performance of this type of piece: the first work is heard on the plenum, a registration employing the full range of pitch levels; for the second we draw a single stop, a principal of singing quality, which recalls the vocal origins of the genre.

We remain with Elizabethan song for William Byrd’s ‘The Woods so Wild,’ a set of variations on a popular song that charmingly invokes the rustling leafiness of the natural world. Byrd’s brilliant and ingenious keyboard art survives in many manuscript collections, including the famous Fitzwilliam Virginal Book from which this piece is taken. In Byrd’s setting, which is meticulously dated ‘1590’ in the Fitzwilliam manuscript, the successive variations pass the melody from voice to voice, from left hand to right, sometimes obscuring it entirely as dancing harmonies take their turn. Throughout, the persistent ornaments evoke the buzzing and trilling of insects and birds in the thrumming landscape.

David Yearsley’s improvised Orfeo Variations range across those same fields and forests with their non-human protagonists, to usher in the more autumnal melancholy of Elizabethan composer Martin Peerson’s Fall of the Leafe, and his contemporary Peter Phillips’ setting of the madrigal by Giulio Caccini (“Giulio the Roman”) Amarilli, mia bella — a sad love song that distantly echoes the myth in which a crimson flower sprang from the blood of the love-struck nymph Amaryllis’s pierced heart.

In the seventeenth century, ‘virtuoso’ was the term for a learned and passionate researcher and collector, the creator of assemblages of items remarkable, beautiful, and strange from the animal, vegetable, and mineral realms. The collected keyboard works of the greatest composer of the Dutch Golden Age, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, might themselves be thought of as a cabinet of curiosities, ranging encyclopedically across genres to reflect the wonders of the contemporary musical world. Sweelinck’s cabinet contains but one Ricercar, but his is a magisterial contribution to the genre. As its title proclaims, the Ricercar is an exercise in research. Sweelinck’s six-note theme begins with contrapuntally rich pairs of falling fourths and rising thirds, then strives upwards through a minor sixth before a sighing semitone returns to the opening pitch—the highest E on the keyboards of Sweelinck’s organs and that of Cornell’s Italian organ. Across its nearly quarter-of-an hour duration the Ricercar goes on to explore the full potential of this carefully devised theme through and around which Sweelinck proudly demonstrates his encyclopedic knowledge of polyphonic combination. Pushing through an epic succession of kaleidoscopic variations, the piece builds in intensity towards its ecstatic summation, the fourths and thirds whirring across the keyboard. Finally, Sweelinck reefs his sails and returns his theme to its original bearing, before again dissolving this reclaimed poise in the thrilling gusts of its coda. Below the long-held E that began the piece, the theme vanishes in echoing music that sounds like the crying of the wind.

If Byrd’s birds were mere sonic suggestions woven into the sylvan soundscape, Austrian court composer Alessandro Poglietti gives center-stage to nature’s most ardent singer, the Nightingale. In Poglietti’s suite Il Rossignolo the characteristic repeated notes of the bird’s call, elaborated with strange chirpings and trills, encrust the Aria bizzarra, before the bird finally flutters free (perhaps with a little chorus of companions) in the ensuing movement—simply entitled, ‘In imitation of the same bird’— and breaks out into pure fantasy.

From the extrovert performance of the Nightingale we turn inwards for the penultimate piece on this program. Contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s haunting setting of Robert Burns’ poem ‘My Heart’s in the Highlands’ rejects virtuosity for simplicity, maximalist variation for minimalist reiteration, conjuring the memory of the beloved landscapes of the Scottish Highlands with haunting beauty. And it is with a familiar landscape that we conclude this recital in a final frolic, climbing the bluffs to admire the lovely Finger Lake overlooked by Cornell University. An improvised set of variations on the popular American tune ‘Annie Lisle,’ the source for Cornell’s alma mater ‘High Above Cayuga’s Waters,’ reveals flashes of the decadent mid-20th-century plumage of Sage Chapel’s Aeolian-Skinner organ. From 18th-century Naples to 20th-century Boston to Ithaca today, the organ—that marvelous collaboration between human artifice and materials taken from the earth—sings across the centuries, its message all the more powerful and urgent as the beauty and balance of the natural world increasingly come under threat. We are asked to listen with ever greater sensitivity, attentiveness, and sympathy — though not without a sense of humor.

-Annette Richards and David Yearsley.

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